Saturday, February 28, 2009

Somewhere in Sonora

Somewhere in Sonora posterSomewhere in Sonora (1933) stars John Wayne who rescues a man caught in the clutches of the Brotherhood of Death, a band of American outlaws operating in Mexico. Wayne plays a cowboy named John Bishop who is framed during a carriage race at the start of the film. A couple of crooks sabotage the wheel of his opponent, so when the wheel flies off mid-race and leaves its drivers injured, Bishop is instantly blamed and tossed in jail. A kindly gentleman named Bob Leadly helps him to escape, and he tells Bishop that his son Burt was also wrongly accused, which forced him to flee to Mexico and join up with the deadly Monty Black and his gang. Even though Bishop’s name is cleared the following day when the real crooks are found, he resolves to test the adage that no one leaves the so-called Brotherhood of Death alive, and gallops southward with his two buffoon sidekicks to retrieve Burt Leadly.

In a Mexican cantina, Bishop encounters Mary Burton and Patsy Ellis, who having been onlookers at the carriage race vehemently reject his company and call him a murderous outlaw. This is significantly overheard by Monty Black. Shortly thereafter, Bishop rescues Burton and Ellis from their runaway carriage, and accompanies them to the town of Paloma, home of Burton’s father the silver miner Mexicali Burton. They clear up the misunderstanding that Bishop sabotaged his opponent, which removes the moral qualms that were keeping Burton from being smitten by the cowboy’s suave advances. Meanwhile, Bishop overhears her father and General Ramirez of the Mexican federal army preparing to vanquish the Monty Black gang which threatens to raid his silver stockpiles. Bishop knows that he has to act fast to save Leadly, otherwise the army will attack the gang while he is still among them.

Bishop rides into where the Brotherhood of Death are hiding out and is approached by Black himself, who thinking that Bishop is an escaped criminal, invites him to join his rag-tag band of American outlaws. Bishop proves himself to be flawless in knife throwing, quick drawing and knife fighting and they allow him to participate in the raid on Paloma. En route Bishop secretly explains to Leadly that he was found to be innocent and that Bishop is here to retrieve him, but the young man reaffirms that no one leaves the Brotherhood of Death alive. As the gang enters Paloma, the filmmakers set in motion the classic save-the-day formula that will be acceptable to John Wayne fans, but preposterous to everyone else. Bishop releases Duke, his highly intelligent white steed, who gallops to the warning bell installed by Mexicali Burton and rings it so that the town is alerted to the infiltrators. Monty Black realizes that he has been double crossed, so Bishop and Leadly flee on horseback with the gang in pursuit. The pair hides in a canyon and a shootout occurs, but they are outmanned and captured by the gang. Black is seconds away from shooting Bishop when Duke leads the sidekicks, Mary Burton and the Mexican federal army to that very spot. This leads into a feel-good ending of justice being served to Black and love triumphing as Bishop and Burton embrace.

Somewhere in Sonora is a true crowd pleaser; it has a dashing hero, comical buffoons, a delightful love sub-plot, exciting action scenes and a noble animal sidekick. However, the film is also an explicit exposé on the merits of Mexico as a place for American investors and holidaymakers. The exposé begins in the cantina. The sidekicks see that the Mexican bartender is too lazy to sell his own liquour, so one hops over the counter and pours outrageous quantities for the cantina’s occupants. Bishop tosses the panicking bartender five bucks, not knowing exactly how much the liquor is worth, which thrills him because he can afford a nice fat cow with the extra money. This scene shows how far the American dollar goes in Mexico; a mere five dollars can buy liquor and livestock. Soon Mexicali Burton is introduced, the poster boy of American investment in Mexico. Burton is profiting from Mexican mineral resources and the Mexican federal army is committed to protecting his investments, even if they need American help to do it. It is noteworthy that the threat in Somewhere in Sonora comes from American outlaws and not Mexican banditos. Mexico is so safe that Burton gets his daughter to drive her own horse-drawn cart down to meet him! As well as being profitable and secure for investment, Mexico is portrayed as pulse-quickening and romantic, with the girls swooning in the moonlight-bathed hacienda to the Spanish guitar. Made in 1933, this film markets Mexico as a place where Americans can do profitable business with a compliant government and have a cheap holiday with abundant liquor and romantic settings, much like how Mexico is marketed today.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

One Night in the Tropics

One Night in the Tropics posterOne Night in the Tropics (1940) is a musical comedy about a topsy-turvy love triangle and is best known as the film debut of radio duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who, although they steal the show with witty dialogues, play only minor roles in the main plot. The movie begins with the klutzy Steve Harper (Robert Cummings), who is unlucky with love in the way that he always has too many women at once. He’s falling head-over-heels (almost literally) for the beautiful Cynthia Merrick (Nancy Kelly) and the two plan to marry within the week; until Steve has several unfortunate run-ins with an elderly lady who ends up being Cynthia’s Aunt Kitty (Mary Boland). She forbids Cynthia to marry such a screw-up and Cynthia finally agrees when Steve inadvertently rips her wedding dress. While Steve tries to win Cynthia back over the phone, Mickey Fitzgerald (Peggy Moran) shows up and declares that no one will marry Steve except for herself. Steve is at odds until his best friend Jim “Lucky” Moore (Allan Jones) arrives with the proposition of offering Steve a million dollar ‘love insurance’ policy against his marrying Cynthia by Saturday. Seeing as Jim is about as lucky as they come for an insurance salesman, Steve accepts with the wisdom that he’ll obviously lose in his love insurance policy and thus marry Cynthia. All appears to be going to plan, as Cynthia has agreed to forgive Steve, until one evening when, while out at a restaurant, Cynthia, Steve, and Jim run into Mickey who sings a swooning love song to Steve. Cynthia becomes suspicious and her fears are soon confirmed after she discovers Mickey cornering a reluctant Steve into a kiss. Jim, who had met Cynthia only that night and immediately was bewitched, becomes fearful that he may owe Steve one million dollars if there’s no marriage that Saturday, not to mention a hefty bet that he laid with the intimidating restaurant manager, Roscoe. Cynthia storms off and is followed by Steve, who is followed by Mickey, who is followed by Jim, who is followed by Abbott and Costello, Roscoe’s unlikely henchmen, who are ordered to make sure Jim seals the deal between Cynthia and Steve.

Cynthia plans to board the S.S. Pan America with her aunt and head for the South American town of San Marcos. She is secretly pursued by Jim, Abbott, and Costello. When Steve fails to arrive at the boarding dock for the scheduled time of departure in order to win back Cynthia, Jim sends Abbott and Costello to investigate. Instead, the two nit wits become absorbed in their famous ‘baseball dialogue’ and when they finally arrive at Steve’s apartment they realize that he was being stalled by the conniving Mickey, who conveniently stole the ‘love insurance’ policy when Steve wasn’t looking. Steve takes the next boat to San Marcos while Mickey, flanked by a watchful Abbott and Costello, also manages her way to the South American city.

Meanwhile, on the steamer, Jim and Cynthia discover that they are interested in one another, but Jim keeps his distance, more to honour the insurance policy than his best friend. Aunt Kitty also takes a liking to Jim and upon arriving in San Marcos she insists that the young pair spend more time together. When night falls, the two lean in for their first moonlit kiss, accompanied by the hotel orchestra, but are interrupted by Steve who bounds up and tries to discreetly tell Jim that Mickey is also at the resort. This is all for naught when Mickey appears in Cynthia’s room that night and divulges the entire story to her. Cynthia joins forces with Mickey in order to beat the boys at their own game, thus making more of a love-square than a love-triangle. Mickey is all for it, as long as she is able to have Steve in the end.

The girls plan comes into action the next day when they attend a bull fight with the men and immediately send them into a state of jealousy with Mickey fawning over Jim to distract Steve, and Cynthia swooning over the bull fighter, Rudolfo, in order to distract Jim. They return to the hotel that night and spend the evening serenading their pretend partners while yearning to be with the ones they love, which leaves everyone pacing their verandas in anticipation of the wedding. The following day, Cynthia arrives at the ceremony to announce that the wedding is off, but is stopped when Roscoe appears and forces the minister to marry Steve and Cynthia so that he can win his bet. Jim spoils Roscoe’s plan by throwing grapes at him and then runs away with Cynthia; leaving Mickey behind who threatens the minister with the dropped gun to marry her and Steve, much to Steve’s delight. In the meantime, Cynthia and Jim race away from Roscoe through a maze of dancers in the square who are performing the country’s national dance, the Farandola, in honour of the wedding ceremony. The pair try to blend in, but to no avail. When Roscoe has them cornered, Cynthia pleads to Roscoe not to hurt Jim. Roscoe begins to laugh and says that the insurance policy has been fulfilled on account of Steve marrying Mickey and no one is going to get hurt. Jim doesn’t even hear this as he’s only focusing on how Cynthia tried to save him. He pulls her in close for a kiss as the final curtain falls.

In New York, the characters are constantly at odds with one another, and while the situation doesn’t appear to improve much after shifting locations to San Marcos, the trip’s intention of ending confusion and liberating love lives eventually transpires. San Marcos, in all its wonderful geographic ambiguity, is a site of escape and a refuge for stressed city-folk. Along with the oddness of its street vendors selling hot dogs under the name of ‘tamales’, even the ‘national dance’ of San Marcos appears out of place as it is actually a dance native to several regions in France. The bullfight brings the characters closer to the culture of Spanish heritage, but the tell-tale ignorance of foreigners in Latin America is flaunted when Aunt Kitty exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty bull!” as the beast appears in the ring, which clearly demonstrates that she is unaware of the expected outcome of a bull fight. The resources of this Latin setting are constantly being utilized to set-up passion for the complicated Americans, from the ever-present orchestra and rich moonlight, to the bullfighter Rudolfo who is used as an object to create jealousy. From the plot’s point of view, one night in the tropics, where “the chief import is love and the chief export is happiness”, is all that is needed to untangle a muddled love-triangle.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Giant posterGiant (1956) is an epic drama that spans three generations of the Benedict family as members of their close-knit Texan community become oil-rich. The film focuses mainly on Jordan “Bick” Benedict Junior, his struggle to maintain a ranching legacy in his family against the dynamic personalities of its members and his life-long contention with ranch-hand turned millionaire Jett Rink. However, there is also a sub-plot that portrays racism against Mexican-Americans by white Texans, a situation which improves incrementally with every new generation.

Bick (played by Rock Hudson) is a Texan rancher who meets socialite Leslie (played by Elizabeth Taylor) when he travels to Maryland to buy her stallion. He is enamored with her, though shocked by her frank and intelligent remarks, and they quickly marry. When the couple leave lush Maryland for dusty Texas, it is clear that Leslie is in a much tougher and cruder world. She must get used to new codes of behavior, most notably in the greater docility expected of her gender and unsympathetic attitude towards Mexicans. Mexicans form the Benedict household and ranch staff but Bick quickly stops Leslie from thanking them or inquiring their names, stating curtly: “Here we don’t make a fuss over those people.” Leslie also meets Bick’s formidable sister Luz and their oddball ranch-hand Jett (played by James Dean), who clearly irks Bick but Luz keeps him at the ranch out of compassion.

Leslie is resolutely dealing with the hardships of married life on a Texas ranch when their home-life is shaken up by Luz’s death. In her will, Luz bestows to Jett a plot of land. Jett lacks direction in life and gives the impression of being simple-minded, but he is astute enough to honour the will instead of taking the $1200 that Bick offers him in lieu of the land, wanting to keep the family ranch intact. The Benedicts have twins, Jordan III and Judy, who temporarily ease their marital strife. However, Bick finds the family structure that the male Benedicts upheld for generations unraveling when Leslie sidesteps his authority to improve the living conditions of the Mexican household and ranch staff, and his young son is terrified by horse-riding. This initiates a sense of failure in him which compounds throughout the film.

To intensify Bick’s resentment, Jett strikes big while prospecting for oil. Bick watches helplessly as trucks drive across his cattle ranch, but even he must concede to building wells with an increased demand for petroleum during WWII. After this point, the film transitions its focus from the couple to their struggle to accept the life choices of their young adult children. Jordan III balks the tradition that he take over the ranch, electing instead to become a doctor and controversially marry a Mexican girl named Juana. Judy and her fiancée also reject ownership of the ranch, favouring to start up their own homestead. Luz Junior, born some years after the twins, has a schoolgirl crush on Jett. Meanwhile, Jett has skyrocketed into fame and fortune, but it proves more than he can handle. The Benedicts travel to one of Jett’s hotels where Texan elites have gathered to see him deliver a national radio address. Jett drinks himself to oblivion, brawls with Jordan III who is incensed about racist policies in the hotel, and publicly passes out on a banquet table. On the way back home, an embittered Bick is redeemed when he fist-fights a diner owner who refuses service to a Mexican family, finally becoming a hero to Leslie. The film closes as they muse about the success and transformation of their family line while watching over their grandchildren, with the camera panning in on two pairs of blue and brown eyes, signaling the hopefulness of the next generation.

(1956) has three interlacing stories: the growth and change of the Benedict family, the rise and fall of oil baron Jett Rink, and the physical and symbolic integration of Mexicans into the United States. As we learn from Jett, generations ago the Benedict family bought their 590,000 acres “from some ignorant Mexicans” at a meager 5¢ per acre. Now, the Mexicans are living in squalid conditions working for an Anglo-American, and targeted by vicious racism. At the beginning, Bick has zero interest in the Mexicans and is exasperated when Leslie enlists Dr. Guerro to review their living conditions, stating: “I’m not the Red Cross, I’m a cow man.” However, one of these racial “others” who he only conceived of as labourers enters his family as a daughter, which causes him to extend his sphere of personal responsibility even to the unknown Mexican family in the diner. By the end of the film, his son shares a practice with the Mexican doctor, and there is a beloved mixed-race child amongst his grandchildren. Mexicans are also portrayed as symbolically becoming part of the United States via their participation in WWII. The first person from the ranch to enlist is Angel Obregón Jr. who dies in action abroad. His funeral is a moving scene in which his flag-draped coffin is surrounded by the Mexican community, and then approached by Bick who solemnly presents Angel Obregón Sr. with the Texas flag. This flag, which to him was previously a symbol of whiteness, is now the property of both cultures.

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey posterThis 2004 version of Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the only one of three versions that remains true to the original novel's shocking ending. The novel and film are loosely based on the life of Peruvian actress Micaela Villegas (1748-1819), known as "La Perichole", a reference to her mixed Spanish and indigenous blood. She was the mistress of the Peruvian Viceroy Manuel Amat y Juniet from 1761 to 1766. The film, however, focusses little on La Perichole and more on the various other characters whose stories intertwine with hers.

The opening scene depicts Franciscan monk Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne) being questioned by the Archbishop of Peru (Robert De Niro) before the Peruvian Viceroy and his court. The questioning regards the book Brother Juniper has written about an event which occurred six years earlier, the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey in the Andes, which sent five seemingly unrelated travellers plunging to their deaths in a deep gorge. The Spanish Inquisition is underway, and Brother Juniper's book has been deemed heretical for its questioning of Fate and God's will. In order to defend himself, Brother Juniper must tell the tale of the Bridge of San Luis Rey, which begins the day that he witnesses the tragedy near his mountainside church. Deeply saddened and intrigued by the seemingly arbitrary nature of these five people's deaths, Brother Juniper takes it upon himself to investigate their stories so that he can find some insight into the workings of God's will. The flashback of Brother Juniper's discoveries begins with the Marquesa Maria de Montemayor, the richest woman in all of Peru. She is a lonely old woman, obsessed with a daughter who has abandoned her for a husband in the court of Spain. She manipulates the Viceroy's court in Peru and participates in the most vicious gossip, all for the sake of her daughter's praise, as she sinks deeper into a lonely, alcohol-numbed existence. In order to alleviate her pain, she asks the Archbishop of Peru to find her a companion. He promptly bribes the Abbess of a convent to provide the Marquesa with a young girl, Pepita, who will live with the Marquesa and help her around the house. One of the Marquesa's favourite pastimes is going to the theatre, where the famous actress La Perrichole is the star attraction. La Perrichole is under the tutelage of the theatre's manager, the nefarious but benign Uncle Pio, who has dedicated himself to making her a star. Part of this process has included his encouragement of her affair with the Viceroy, who in return for her attentions provides the theatre with generous patronage. La Perrichole has a secret lover on the side, a handsome matador to whom she sends letters dictated to her scribe Manuel, a silent young man who shares his silence and his identity with his inseparable twin brother Esteban. One day, Manuel and Esteban are unloading a ship at the harbour for a Spanish captain, Alvarado, when Manuel's leg is gravely injured. Despite Esteban's care, Manuel's leg becomes gangrenous and eventually kills him. Esteban's consequent depression leads him to quit his job as La Perrichole's scribe and try to commit suicide. Captain Alvarado arrives just in time to save Esteban from his death, and takes Esteban under his wing, giving him a job on his ship for his next trip to Spain.

We return to La Perrichole's story, in which she and the Viceroy are attending a bullfight together. The matador, her secret lover, publicly pronounces his passion for La Perrichole, causing the Viceroy to be humiliated. That night, at the theatre, the Marquesa angers La Perrichole by acting shamelessly bored in front of all the Royal Court; La Perrichole responds by publicly making fun of the Marquesa. The Viceroy takes this opportunity to avenge himself for his humiliation by ordering La Perrichole to make a public apology to the Marquesa wearing the rags of shame. When she goes to the Marquesa's palace to apologize the following day, La Perrichole is surprised to discover that the Marquesa has had an epiphany, in which she repents from her scheming ways and apologizes to La Perrichole. La Perrichole's relief is fleeting, however, as she soon discovers she is pregnant with the Viceroy's child. The Viceroy arranges for her to live in a villa high up in the Andes until the child is born. Her absence causes Uncle Pio a great deal of sadness; not only has he lost his beloved protegee, but without her his theatre suffers. Once she has had the child, little Don Jaime, Uncle Pio repeatedly visits her and tries to convince her to return, but La Perrichola has accepted her lonely fate away from the public eye. The situation worsens when an outbreak of smallpox infects her and disfigures her loveliness; she escapes the villa and goes to live alone in the mountains with her son, hoping never to see anyone ever again. A few years later, Uncle Pio finds her and convinces her to let him take young Don Jaime back to Lima, where he can be educated and properly cared for by Uncle Pio.

The final and fateful day of the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey arrives as the destinies of all these characters come together. Uncle Pio is returning from La Perrichola's hideout in the Andes with the little child Jaime on his back. The lonely Esteban, who has spent a few days up at Captain Alvarado's house in the mountains, is returning to Lima to embark upon his journey to Spain. La Marquesa is returning from a pilgrimage to Brother Juniper's church in the mountains, where she has travelled to beg God for forgiveness of her past misdeeds, with Pepita in tow. The Marquesa, Pepita, Esteban, Uncle Pio, and little Jaime step onto the bridge, and before Brother Juniper's eyes, plunge to their deaths as the ropes of the bridge break. The flashback ends, bringing us back to the interrogation of Brother Juniper by the Archbishop. The Archbishop denounces his writings as heretical, as the "work of the devil", because Brother Juniper's close search for a historical, mathematical proof of God demonstrates doubt of God. This absurd accusation is supported by all those in the court, including the Viceroy. La Perrichole is brought in to testify for Brother Juniper, but the smallpox that has disfigured her face causes the Viceroy to refuse to acknowledge her identity, making her testimony useless. The Archbishop condemns Brother Juniper to be burned at the stake, with all the copies of his book, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey".

The film was shot on location in Spain, despite its setting being Peru. The focus is on the elaborate power structure of the Spanish colonial system, on the lavish and exaggerated lifestyles of the power-hungry Spanish elites. These elites are portrayed as ridiculous, pompous, and stupid. The Viceroy and his aides are hedonistic and decadent wig-wearing fools, who care little for the proper governance of the colony and more about entertaining themselves. The Marquesa is a fat, desperate and lonely woman who uses her obscene wealth to gain favour in the court. Uncle Pio and La Perrichole, who are lower on the hierarchical ladder of the colony, will do anything to be accepted by these elites, even betray themselves. The costumes in the film, which were praised by critics (the only thing praised by critics) are luxurious and exaggerated, demonstrating the wealth and decadence of the ruling elites. Only Brother Juniper lies outside this struggle for social status; he lives a frugal life among the natives, tending to his church. His good deeds are denounced by the Church, which opposes his education of the natives and his challenge of the Church's corruption. In the colonial system, climbing the social ladder and gaining prestige is of the utmost importance, and goodness is squashed under the quest for power.

It seems that the deaths of the repentant Marquesa, the kind Pepita, the suffering Esteban, the benevolent Uncle Pio, the innocent little Jaime, and the holy Brother Juniper prove that in colonial Peru, goodness can't survive. The good are taken up to heaven, where they are free from the evils of their fellow men. Colonial Peru is a place for wicked men to play their petty games and pay for them with boredom, desperation, and sickness. Brother Juniper's search for God's will reveals that God rewards those who are good, who repent for their sins and help others, by removing them from the cruel world, while leaving the power-hungry to their wicked lives on earth. The manipulation of religious faith by the Archbishop and the Viceroyalty as a means of achieving political power shows their godlessness, a godlessness that permeates the air of colonial Peru.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Old Gringo

Old Gringo posterThe "old gringo" in the film Old Gringo (1989) is Ambrose Bierce (Gregory Peck) a famous American writer and journalist who has denounced his American life and goes south to fight in the Mexican Revolution in 1913. His fate is intertwined with that of a gringa, sexually repressed schoolteacher Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda), who has also left her boring American life to be the governess for a wealthy landowning Mexican family, the Mirandas. Both Americans arrive in Chihuahua looking to make something of their lives. What they find is General Tomas Arroyo, a handsome revolutionary leader who will change their destinies, and the destiny of Mexico. Amidst the revolutionary fervour and celebration in Chihuahua, the three characters find each other. Bierce approaches Arroyo and asks to fight in his revolution; a skeptical but curious Arroyo accepts. Without crossing paths with Bierce, Harriet Winslow asks Arroyo to help her get to the hacienda of the Mirandas in the Sierra mountains; Arroyo accepts because he can use her to get into the Miranda house and expropriate the family with his revolutionary forces. And so ensues the adventure: Arroyo and his men escort Ms. Winslow into the mountains, where Arroyo's army awaits, and Mr. Bierce follows far behind on horseback.

Upon arrival at the Miranda hacienda, it becomes clear that the Mirandas have fled in the face of the encroaching revolutionary army. Their hacienda, however, is being defended by los Federales, the federal anti-revolutionary troops. A bloody and violent battle takes place, in which many men on both sides are killed. Bierce becomes the hero of the battle when he orchestrates the collision of a train into the Miranda house, the destruction of which leads to the defeat of the Federales by the revolucionarios. Ms. Winslow manages to emerge unscathed from the carnage, shocked and bewildered. That night, while Arroyo's army and their women and children celebrate the victory, Ms. Winslow and Mr. Bierce meet and a romantic spark is lit between the bitter old man and the lost spinster. In the following days, Ms. Winslow and Mr. Bierce become immersed in the life of the revolutionaries at the hacienda, Ms. Winslow doing chores and talking with the women and children while Mr. Bierce befriends General Arroyo assists him with logistics. The happy and determined Mexican people charm the two Americans and teach them a few lessons about the Revolution, making them feel that they are contributing to a positive cause for the first time in their lives. A romantic triangle is introduced when the young General Arroyo takes an interest in Ms. Winslow, who must choose between the powerful, lustful young general and the older gentleman who is besotted with her. Her sexual liberation comes when she succumbs to the seduction of Arroyo in a luxurious bed of the Miranda hacienda.

But the carefree existence in the hacienda is fleeting, for all characters. It is revealed that Tomas Arroyo is in fact a bastard child of the escaped Don Miranda, who raped Arroyo's mother and impregnated her. This fact haunts Arroyo, who suffered at the hands of the Mirandas his whole life and is now unable to let go of the hacienda he has taken from them. He is obsessed with the deeds to the land, which are to be redistributed among the people, but he cannot read them. When the leader of the Revolution, Pancho Villa, summons Arroyo and his army to fight at the front, Arroyo delays leaving the hacienda until even his colonels begin to question his fitness as a leader. Arroyo begins to execute any men who question him. When Mr. Bierce, in an attempt to free Arroyo from his obsession, burns the land deeds with a candle, Arroyo loses control and shoots Bierce to death. Bierce dies in the arms of Ms. Winslow, who has just found out Bierce's identity as her favourite writer. Ms. Winslow flees the hacienda, disillusioned and afraid of Arroyo's rage.
In Chihuahua, Ms. Winslow arranges to take Bierce's body back to America, so she can bury him properly; he was like a father to her and she would like to repay him for his kindness. The body is in possession of General Pancho Villa himself, the leader of the Revolution. When she is summoned to his military lair, she is surprised to find a chagrined Arroyo there. Villa asks her to sign a witness statement of the death of Mr. Bierce, and, to her bewilderment, the death of Tomas Arroyo. It becomes clear that Arroyo is to be killed by his own men for his lack of judgment as a revolutionary leader and his murder of Bierce. After saying a heartfelt goodbye to his friends and fellow soldiers, Arroyo submits himself to be executed by them. His last words are "Viva la Revolucion!". Following this, a heartbroken but renewed Harriet Winslow leaves Chihuahua for America.

This film is based on the novel "Gringo Viejo" , by Carlos Fuentes. It is a film pervaded by the revolutionary spirit of Mexico, the enthusiastic and heartfelt struggle for the common people and the violence that inevitably comes with it. It portrays the essential process of creative destruction; for a new Mexico to be born, the old Mexico must be destroyed. The revolutionaries are philosophical about this creative destruction. "You gringos are too complicated," a bullet-strapped sombrero-wearing moustached fighter tells Bierce, "Death is just death!". Ms. Winslow calls Mexico a land where "Death is not the end, but the beginning". Arroyo's acceptance of his own death shows his true commitment to the Revolution and his understanding that the Revolution must be pure and unstained by his betrayal. He is, in the end, a Miranda, which is everything the Revolution stands against, and so he must be destroyed. Patriotism has the ultimate value in Mexico, and its people will do anything for their country and their freedom.

For the gringos, Mexico also provides freedom from the chains with which America has imprisoned them. Bierce is in search of the truth, sick of the lies of the American newspapers and his own writing. In Mexico, he seeks a way to "die admirably", to fight a war the way it deserves to be fought. He denounces the dirty imperialist goals of America, especially in the "shameful" war in Cuba in 1898. "To be a gringo in Mexico...aaaah, that is euthanasia", he muses. Mexico is a place where he can die, where he can be free from the difficulties of life and age. In Mexico, death is indeed a beginning, one which Bierce seeks. A death in the Mexican Revolution is a noble one. It is his death which consequently frees Arroyo from his identity crisis and his tortured life; Bierce's death facilitates the death of Arroyo. In being set free from life, Bierce allows Arroyo to be set free as well. Ms. Winslow also finds freedom in Mexico. She is amazed and inspired by the sense of humour and zeal for life of the Mexicans, who are surrounded by violence and suffering. She finds her long-lost sexuality with the help of Bierce and Arroyo. She discovers her strength and her femininity through guidance from the Mexican women. To Arroyo she says, "You made me believe I could live a different kind of life. I'll never be the same". She adopts the Mexican attitude towards death and accepts Bierce and Arroyo's deaths with strength. The Mexican Revolution leads to Mexico's freedom, as well as the freedom of the protagonists.


The Ride Back

The Ride Back posterIn Western movies, an American gunslinger who rides down to Mexico does so for three reasons: 1) He is a mercenary looking to make some cash 2) He is a lawman retrieving a criminal to be tried in the United States, or 3) He is a troubled soul seeking redemption. The Ride Back (1957) follows the latter two conventions, depicting the journey of Sheriff Chris Hamish who is dead set on retrieving accused murderer Roberto Kallen from his Mexican hideout to stand trail in the United States, and the bond that forms between them while on the journey back up north.

The film comically opens as Hamish tries to get his search warrant for Kallen signed by a Mexican police officer. The border station doubles at the officer’s home, so he is preoccupied by his wailing child and nagging wife, but after Hamish communicates his mission via charades and simplified English, the officer is happy to assist him. When Hamish arrives in Cerralvo, the Mexican town where Kallen is hiding out, he finds the accused criminal deeply rooted there; he has a fiercely loyal girlfriend named Elena and the local men rush to his aid upon hearing that Hamish plans to take him. This acceptance is partly explained by Kallen’s half-Mexican parentage, but more so by his charisma. Hamish is the opposite in this respect; he has no noteworthy characteristics, is unskilled with a gun and is visibly scared. Kallen even asks him: “Why did they send you after me? Man, you don’t look to me like you’re much.” To which Hamish replies: “I’m not.”

Hamish succeeds on getting Kallen on the road, but only because Kallen treats Hamish as a mere nuisance and expects to be back in Cerralvo by sundown. However, Hamish thwarts Kallen’s multiple attempts to escape and succeeds in bringing him to the border, with a love-sick Elena following all the way. The border officer, loyal to Hamish as a fellow lawman, refuses to hear Kallen’s appeals and detains Elena. However, once in the U.S. the duo encounter the Apaches, a Native American tribe portrayed as roving warriors who mercilessly kill and get smashed on looted alcohol. They hide in a small frontier dwelling whose occupants, except for one little girl, have been murdered by the Apaches. Tensions between the men reach a boiling point as Kallen lets loose his searing contempt for Hamish’s cowardice, and Hamish repeats that he’s taking Kallen back to stand trial. When the mood has cooled, Kallen appeals to Hamish, stating that he killed in self-defense and only ran from the crime because he knew that as an outsider he was as good as hung. Hamish promises Kallen a fair trial, but also admits that this mission is not about the law but about him; Hamish has been always been failure, hated by everyone including his wife, and this is his one chance to set things right.

Kallen gains the timid trust of the girl and the three barely escape from the house under fire by the Apaches. The Apaches catch up to them a mere two miles from Scotssville, where Kallen is to stand trail, and severely wound Hamish. After Kallen has killed their aggressors he is confronted with a staggering moral dilemma: to return to life in Mexico or face the American justice system. At first he charges the girl with retrieving help for Hamish, who is delirious with pain, and rides off south. Before long, however, he returns to find that the blank-eyed girl and the semi-unconscious Hamish have not moved, so he loads them onto his horse and nobly heads to Scotssville, where he can only hope that Hamish can keep his promise of a fair trial.

There are two kinds of American outlaws that escape to Mexico in Western movies, those who are essentially bad and are evading the law, and those who are essentially good and are taking refuge from a broken legal system. In The Ride Back, Kallen is of the latter category; throughout the film he is shown to be increasingly tender-hearted and well-intentioned, but would have been hung in the United States by a prejudiced jury. However, the film sends the message that while juries are fallible, the law must nevertheless be abided by.

The Ride Back shows a great degree of partnership and integration between Mexico and the United States, as evidenced by the Mexican police officer’s eagerness to help Hamish exercise the law across the border. However, Mexican law is portrayed as something very different to American law. The Mexican, even though he is the go-to person for signing search warrants, ambles up to Hamish in a sweaty t-shirt, has to deal with a crying baby left carelessly on the sand, and fails to immediately recognize the paper that Hamish holds before him. Though he is ultimately friendly and helpful, the police officer, and the national bureaucracy that he represents, is not efficient, knowledgeable or professional. There is a great degree of Spanish dialogue in the film for which no subtitles are given; for a non-Spanish speaking audience this adds greater confusion to the Mexican police officer hollering to his family members and greater exoticism to the loving words of Elena to Kallen. This distance created by language is at odds with the apparent closeness of Mexico and the United States; throughout the film Hamish repeatedly asks Mexicans if they speak English and vice versa for Spanish. At the end of the day, the two neighbouring cultures are portrayed as worlds apart.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Americano

The Americano posterThe 1916 version of The Americano is a silent film put to Vaudeville background music and set before the "Great War" (World War I), “when little wars were still important”, on the unfamiliar island of the Republic of Paragonia in the Caribbean Sea. The island is described as one of sunshine, music, adventure, and romance, but another perspective is soon revealed. The Paragonia Cabinet is set to discuss if the contract for the American Mining Company to continue operation on the island should be re-newed. It appears as though all parties are in favor of the partnership as it would boost Paragonia’s economy; all except for the vindictive Minister of War, Salsa Espada (Carl Stockdale), who refers to the company as those “American pigs”. But Espada stands alone and so the renewal goes through. President de Castalar (Spottiswoode Aitken) chooses the Premier of the Republic, Alberto Castille (Tote Du Crow), to travel with the Premier’s wife and the President’s daughter, Juana (Alma Rubens), the “Rose of Paragonia”, to the mining company’s home office in New York in order to finalize the contract. The School of Mining has sent the reference of engineer and “regular American” Blaze Derringer (Douglas Fairbanks) for the tough job of assisting Paragonia in the mining contract, but when Blaze sees that Paragonia doesn’t even fit on the same map as NewYork, he quickly declines the offer. Castille enters just after the refusal, and Blaze leaves the office only to be confronted with the beautiful face of Juana which quickly changes his decision and he accepts the position in Paragonia.

That very day, Castille receives bad news from home and must catch the next boat back. Juana manages to write a note to Blaze telling him not to go to an unhappy country. This warning piques Blaze’s curiousity and he makes sure to be on the next boat to the island. Upon arriving, he is treated as an outsider when no one offers him directions to the President’s house, until a strange, bearded, old man reveals the location and asks Blaze to tell the señorita that there’s hope. Slightly confused, Blaze continues on, unbeknownst to him that the President has been overthrown by Espada and his sidekick Colonel Gargaras, one of Juana’s many eager suitors. When Blaze isn’t let into the mansion through the front door, he boldly climbs a side wall into the garden where Juana throws down a message telling him to return at midnight, only adding to the ominous mystery. Blaze then heads to the company office which appears to have been ransacked and only Harold Armitage White, a black man in the position of attaché in the mining company, is there to greet him. Blaze declares to a hesitant Harold that the Americans must stick together and they both leave the looted building.

Later, when Blaze is eating dinner at a posh restaurant, the same bearded, old man approaches and hands him a note which asks Blaze to follow him. It turns out that the old man is actually Castille in disguise from Espada and he informs Blaze that Gargaras is forcing Juana into marriage or he will murder her father. Castille and Blaze plot to break the President out of prison when it appears that Espada has been siphoning money out of the soldiers’ pay because he is unable to operate the mines without a good engineer. Meanwhile, the President has discovered that his cell in San Mateo prison attaches to an old, escape tunnel, but the entrance has been filled-in with concrete. He decides to write “23 noviembre 1899” on tiny pieces of paper which float down to the rocky coast below his cell when the maid deposits them out the window with the rest of the rubbish. Blaze and Castille discover the notes while scouting the prison and Juana deciphers the code with the help of her father’s diary which notes the prison cell’s unique structure on that specific entry date. They prepare to break the President out that night, but the plans are delayed when Espada has Blaze arrested so as to coerce him with a bribe of ‘soldier money’ to run the mines. Blaze agrees in order to avoid confrontation and then races to the prison and digs through the tunnel’s wall to free the President. Blaze, Castille, Harold, and the President race back into town when they realize that they don’t have much time until Juana is forced to marry Gargaras. They arrive with seconds to spare, and Blaze throws some weight around as he fights several soldiers at once. He then appears on the balcony to the delight of the crowd of people below all chanting “Americano” in admiration of this man who is going to start up the mine for them once again. Without losing any time, he denounces Espada in front of the crowd for stealing money from the army and reveals that the president has been freed. The film ends by stating in shock that after all this, Juana still marries the Head of the Army. A happy ending blooms when it is learned that the brave Blaze has been appointed Head of the Army in place of Gargaras.

The title of The Americano commences a linguistic hybridity which continues the entire way through this silent film, with even the on-screen translations lacking in a basic knowledge of Spanish. The indistinct island of Paragonia adds to this vagueness of culture, but also complements the dependence that this small Republic invests in the mighty and familiar country of America. With a name as equally ambiguous as Paragonia, the American Mining Company, represented by the adventurous and charming persona of Blaze, swoops in to not only save the economic crisis of the populace, but to rescue the beloved President from his usurper. In light of such events as the US securing Cuba as a territory in 1903 and the possession of a completed Panama Canal in 1914, it seems only natural that America is portrayed in the film as a giant power capable of single-handedly liberating a floundering Caribbean country, while leaving no trace of the traditional American desire for foreign resources. It’s baffling that such a pretext remains even after a situation which occurred during the preliminary filming of The Americano in Tijuana, Mexico, where Fairbanks and the film crew were arrested by corrupt Mexican soldiers, who turned out to be militia short on cash; thus causing those involved with the film to retreat north shortly after, with their tails between their legs, to resume filming in San Diego. After such an incident, perhaps it could be argued that the adventurous and triumphant American spirit displayed so openly in The Americano only exists in the context of narratives.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Amazon posterAmazon (1990), which begins with an aerial camera shot of an indigenous hut nestled among the trees and then flashes to a pitiful landscape of deforestation stretching as far as the horizon, should be commended for its sense of authenticity as such scenes were accurately filmed in the paradox that is the Brazilian rainforest.

The movie opens by introducing Kari (Kari Väänänen) and his two pre-adolescent daughters traveling the dusty road of the Trans-Amazonic highway through Brazil. Flashbacks show that Kari used to be a successful and happy businessman living Finland, until his beloved American wife was put in a coma due to a car crash. The accident devastates Kari who disconnects his wife’s breathing machine in an act of love; thus prompting him to escape to Brazil with his daughters in order to evade the authorities. The promising new life in Rio de Janeiro is dashed when Kari realizes that he can’t possibly find work without knowing the right people, which leaves him and his family surrounded by theft and shady characters. His friend Fransisco offers him a job as a driver, but they are stopped en route by police. Fransisco makes a break for it, obviously indicating that they are transporting illegal materials, and he is shot dead. After Kari avoids the same fate by claiming to be an American, he ushers his daughter onto a long road trip in search of employment and a better life, which brings us back to the Trans-Amazonic highway: a “skinny, black line through an endless wall of green” on the map, but in reality a “red dusty nightmare headed for nowhere”. The three travelers run out of gas and inadvertently meet Dan (Robert Davi), a selfish and rude American pilot whose plane has also run out of gas. After filling the car’s gas tank with alcohol, the group tows the plane to an abandoned highway construction site housing an old bulldozer which they use to siphon some gas into the plane. Here Dan tells Kari that he plans to mine for gold in the north, and when Kari pleads for him and his daughter to go as well, Dan reluctantly agrees.

They arrive in the mining town of Cerapalata, meaning ‘naked mountain’ but feeling like “Dante’s Hell where condemned miners look for nonexistent retribution”, and Kari immediately sets out to make a buck by doing the strenuous hard labour of carrying bags of wet soil out of huge mining holes. One night after Kari collapses in his hammock from exhaustion, his daughter finds a large diamond in his shoe. Kari thinks that this is his fortune at last, but Dan knows better and after he has the flawed stone appraised, he offers a partnership to Kari in the northern town of Tapacan where they will pan in a river for real diamonds. The plan is to make enough money by doing flying errands to eventually tow the abandoned bulldozer from the Trans-Amazonic highway up to north; but this plan is upset when Kari becomes enchanted with an educated and beautiful woman living in Tapacan named Paola (Rae Dawn Chong). She likes Kari as well, but disagrees with the plan to bring huge machines in order to mine the mythical diamonds because this will cause the greedy banks to sweep in on the free land and use it for their own purposes. Kari is torn on what to do as he examines the reality of selfish foreigners who disturb the balance of the Brazilian environment.

The situation is soon thrown into disarray when Dan and Kari crash the plane into the jungle and Dan dies due to a broken neck. Kari is alone and injured in the plane and dreams of him and Dan bringing the bulldozer to the mine which then causes all the indigenous people to disappear. Suddenly Kari wakes up and is surrounded by a tribe Indians who take him back to their village and tersely nurse him back to health. Kari coexists among them as a silent tribe member, until one night they are distracted and Kari escapes down the Amazon in a canoe. After days of barely surviving in the wilderness, he comes across a town on the river and immediately hitches a ride back to Tapacan, his girls, and Paola. The experience of living alongside the indigenous tribe has changed Kari and he is happy once again for the first time since his wife died. He tells Paola that he realized she was right about the devastation the bulldozer would bring to the land; despite this, however, Kari recognizes that greed and power always win when in the last scene everyone looks up to see a ominous black helicopter carrying a bulldozer to the peaceful panning river.

Amazon is a film which was clearly made to bring awareness to the public about the conflict over land in the Brazilian rainforest. The movie incorporates an almost poetic speech to discuss the situation surrounding the indigenous peoples: “The Indians say the Amazon is as long as life…you’ll never reach the end.” The indigenous culture is an ever-present, yet hidden aspect of this lush forest; more of an afterthought to greedy foreigners and officials than an actual community of people. This is demonstrated when Dan off-handedly mentions to Kari that the panning river in Tapacan was government land until 3 years ago when they decided to give it back to the Indians; however, they didn’t make it official and it has ended up being free land for anyone to use. And so it is that the Indians are living “in the stone age, but sitting on treasures of a modern world.” Dan confides to Kari before the plane crashes that he doesn’t think anyone should have any right to tell them how to live. He states that “they’ve got nothing better to do on their reservations but sit around and wait for the next white man’s disease.” Then Dan’s past is divulged about a time when he had an Indian wife and he had supplied guns to the whole village in hopes of being their saviour, but he instead became their burden when white men came with machine guns and murdered the entire community. This is the modern world of technology encroaching upon the indigenous territory. This is the thousands of hectares of abundant and thriving forests being chopped down into a wasteland in order to make to-go coffee cups in a distant country. Just as Kari declares that Rio de Janeiro looks like a paradise in the brochures but in reality it may as well be Hell, the rainforest also looks verdant and fertile until the ugly side of the conflict is illustrated. The movie ends with a note about cultural and environmental awareness saying that 40 million hectares (or roughly the state of Washington) are being destroyed annually which will lead to the final and complete devastation of the Brazilian rainforest within this generation. The words are simultaneously overwhelming and inspiring, yet as we saw with Kari, realization is only the first step, and even with this awareness the bulldozers continue to arrive. Amazon shows that a true sense of change and fervent determination are needed in order to stop the relentless loss of rainforest and indigenous culture.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Man from Monterey

The Man from Monterey posterThe Man from Monterey (1933) stars John Wayne as Captain John Holmes, an all-American hero who saves Don Jose Castanares from loosing his ranch to land grabbers and his daughter to a sham marriage in pre-Union California.

The opening scene presents the premise of The Man from Monterey: The unscrupulous Don Pablo Gonzales is planning to acquire the ranch of long-time friend Don Jose Castanares by keeping him ignorant of an ultimatum by the United States government that Californians must register their lands by a certain day, or they will be turned into public domain. To ensure that he can claim title to this land, Don Pablo arranges for his dull and pithless son Don Luis to marry Don Jose’s spirited daughter Dolores. Subsequently, the bombastic Mexican sidekick is introduced to the plot, who achieves comedic effect by constantly repeating his long-winded name, Felipe Guadalupe Constacio Delgado Santa Cruz de la Varranca. He teams up with Captain John Holmes after Holmes valiantly steps in as Don Luis is victimizing him. This is the first of numerous run-ins between Holmes and Don Luis in which the former proves himself the better man.

Dolores falls for Holmes after a spectacular display of chivalry, using his fine horsemanship to save her in her runaway carriage after its driver was shot off by bandits. Little do they know that the bandits were hired by Don Luis so that he could display his chivalry, but instead he watches impotently from the sidelines. Holmes, a cavalry officer, has been charged with informing Don Jose that he must register his lands, so Don Pablo hires some American thugs to detain him. A fellow officer shows up and threatens to arrest their leader Jake Morgan, but Holmes skillfully defuses the situation, thereby earning an ally in Morgan. Don Pablo ups the ante by having Don Jose kidnapped, and tells a grieving Dolores that he cannot help her unless she concedes to marrying his son, which she woefully does.

At first Holmes suspects the Morgan gang, but after pinning the kidnapping on Don Pablo, he hatches a plan to infiltrate the wedding. Don Luis’s mistress Anita is employed to masquerade as Dolores, which she does by remaining veiled until the vows have been taken, meanwhile Holmes locates and rescues Don Jose, making use of a cross-dressing Felipe as a diversion. A duel ensues between Holmes and Don Luis, and just when Holmes is being overwhelmed by men loyal to Don Luis, a bizarre psychic communication occurs between the cowboy and his horse, who gallops to the Morgan gang and brings them to assist Holmes. With the conspiracy uncovered and its perpetrators defeated, Holmes and Dolores throw themselves into an embrace which brings the film to a close.

The Man from Monterey is set when America gained sovereignty over California at the end of the Mexican-American War (1946-1948) and portrays its shifting demographic and political character. Firstly, Anglo Americans are moving into the newly acquired territory, which is not appreciated by the Gonzaleses, the younger of which sneers: “As far as I’m concerned, gringos are all robbers.” There is truth to this statement; the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) is one of the biggest land-grabs in history, when the U.S. forcibly incorporated almost half of Mexican territory. However, the filmmakers took pains to make U.S. hegemony appear benevolent; as Holmes explains to Don Jose: “The government has taken these measures for your protection, not to rob you. In no other way can we protect you from all the land-grabbers in California.” At the same time, Holmes tells the Morgan gang, “If I can’t persuade [Don Jose] to register his land, you can move in as fast as the law allows.” Benevolence only goes so far as American interests are concerned. There is a racial difference between the darker-skinned Mexican common-folk and the Hispanic upper class who fret about their land entitlements from the King of Spain; there is an implication that the Hispanic characters do not truly own the land, nor do the mestizo Mexicans, whereas the American characters speak of their right to it.

The supposed benevolence, orderliness and fairness of U.S. hegemony are embodied in the person of John Wayne. This establishes America as an idealized masculine power, in comparison with Europe, embodied by the incapable Don Luis, and Mexico, embodied by the servile Felipe. Wayne epitomizes the masculine ideal by being supremely competent in his every endeavor; he is a just and thorough lawman, a suave and successful lover, and a skilled and valiant fighter. Dolores pines for a man of “energy and ambition” and Holmes excels in both. The other male protagonists starkly contrast to the hero. Don Luis is a mean-spirited and deceitful person, so impotent that he stands by while Holmes steals Dolores and he relies on his aged father to carry out their plot. Felipe is emasculated on numerous accounts including his dog-like devotion to Holmes, his childish superstitions about fortune-telling cards, and ultimately donning the clothes of an old woman. These allegorical figures allow the spotlight to fall on Wayne, an icon that fuses Americanness and masculinity like few others have done.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Doll Face

Doll Face posterThe 1946 film Doll Face begins with auditions for the famous playwright Flo Hartman’s newest operetta Park Avenue, at the Belmont Theatre in New York. A nervous Mary Carroll tries her luck and ends up wowing the judges with her singing and showmanship, until a director begins yelling out, “That’s it, Doll Face!” His dumbfounded co-directors look at him in surprise until he explains that ‘Mary Carroll’ is actually ‘Doll Face’ Carroll (Vivian Blaine), the head-liner at the Gayety Theatre burlesque show, who has a reputation for making men swoon in their seats. When Hartman refuses to have such a woman in his show, Carroll’s husband and manager, Mike Hannegan (Dennis O’Keef) appears on the stage beside the upset Carroll and vows that she’s got the talent that will make her a star. After leaving the theatre, Mike realizes that he has to add culture to Carroll’s character in order to sell her act to haughty producers like Hartman, and decides that he’ll hire a famous author to write Doll Face’s story and then put her name on it as an autobiography.

As a result, he enlists the help of the handsome writer Frederick Gerard (Stephen Dunne), who at first doesn’t agree with the idea of a book based on burlesque theatre, but then is persuaded otherwise once he sets his eyes on the beautiful Doll Face. He insists on spending as much time with her as possible in order to get the full life story (although he misconstrues almost every fact to make her appear more refined). His sudden change of heart is noted by Carroll’s best friend and fellow burlesque dancer, Chita Chula (Carmen Miranda), who makes sure to alert Mike to her suspicions about the writer. Mike needs little persuasion to acknowledge Fred’s true intentions after the author offers a hefty sum as an investment for a theatre to promote Doll Face’s career. Carroll does stay true to Mike, until, through a misfortunate series of events while going to visit a publisher for the book, her and Fred end up together on a deserted beach just outside of New York. When the worried Mike finds them there together, his concern soon turns to anger as he suspects foul play (of which, there really was none). He pushes Carroll towards Fred (figuratively and literally) saying, “Chita was right.”

With Doll Face gone, the burlesque theatre is in immanent danger of going out of business. It appears as though Carroll is perfectly happy with Fred, and Hartman even offers her a spot in a new play which will be based on her autobiography. Chita keeps a close eye on Doll Face and when it seems as though her and Fred are on the rocks, she sends over a shamefaced Mike to try to patch up the relationship; but to no avail, as Doll Face won’t even speak to him. Mike concocts a plan to reveal on the play’s opening night that by contract Doll Face is not allowed to work for anyone else, thereby allowing him to speak to her. At first, Doll Face is appalled at this move, but once Mike professes his love and that he was wrong when he found her and Fred on the beach, Doll Face realizes that she never stopped loving him. She then one-ups the cunningness of Mike by using the influence of her contract to score him a cut of the play’s profits from Hartman. Thus, the play and the couple’s true love are saved in a display of shrewd, New York business sense; because everyone knows that in both love and the theatre, the show must go on.

Carmen Miranda’s small part in Doll Face is actually the back-bone of the plot as she continually arouses suspicions amongst the love triangle and attempts to piece together what has been broken. It’s easy to see the vivacity ready to burst forth from the sequined costumes of her character, introduced as “Chita Chula: The Little Lady from Brazil”; though, sadly, such displays are conspicuously absent. The lack of focus set on Miranda is quite incompatible for such a famous personality, but such an error is slightly mended when she does an exotic Latin number in Doll Face’s play, complete with gyrating hips and a large head-dress…exactly what is expected from the persona of Carmen Miranda. This scene becomes even more evident of self-reflection when it is noted that earlier in the movie, when asked to join in the Broadway play, Chita replies that she would never want to become another Carmen Miranda (and does an impressive job of mocking her own hips). Chita appears to be a talented immigrant wanting to make her own way in the world without riding on the train of Carmen Miranda’s dress; this making perfect sense as it’s possible that Miranda was the most famous and highly-paid female performer of that time, American or not. Be that as it may, Chita is still a migrant from the Portuguese-speaking country of Brazil, attempting to fit in as American, and ‘acting’ Spanish by performing a dance number set in ‘Porto Rico’. So many inconsistencies add up to the Doll Face producers wanting the popular spice of Latin stars added to a film focused on American show business, while obviously capitalizing on the fame of a Brazilian export, who, unfortunately, is kept in the shadows.

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For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More posterFor a Few Dollars More (1965) is the second installment of the “Dollars Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone. The film continues the A Fistful of Dollars (1964) narrative of frontier lawlessness as Eastwood partners with another bounty hunter to pursue El Indio, a notorious killer and bank robber, in southern Texas.

El Indio makes his first appearance while being busted out of jail by a motley gang of Mexican outlaws. He hunts down the man who jailed him, and in a theatrical display of rabid vengeance in gratuitous cruelty, El Indio has his wife and infant child dragged away to be shot, and then shoots the trembling man after they listen to the tinkling melody of a gold pocket-watch. However, El Indio is not so cold-blooded that this event leaves him unaffected; after the murder he motions desperately to his henchman to light him a joint. He spends the rest of the film alternating between being a hot-blooded, cackling gunslinger and a stoned, disheveled wreck. He congregates with his men in El Paso, site of a purportedly impenetrable bank that holds half a million dollars. Coincidentally, he and the carpenter who installed the safe were jailed together, so he knows the schematics of inside the bank.

Meanwhile, the skilled bounty hunters Manco (played by Eastwood) and Colonel Douglas Mortimer have shown up in El Paso hoping to earn the reward for bringing in El Indio, dead or alive. They make a partnership and a plan whereby Manco infiltrates El Indio’s gang. El Indio knows that Manco plans to double-cross him, but involves him in the bank heist anyway. However, the trick is on Manco, because instead of catching El Indio mid-heist, his gang merely blows up the bank wall, lets the safe topple into a wagon, and speeds off with it. Manco terminates his partnership with Mortimer and tries to deceive him. Mortimer is too intelligent for this, and the pair meets again at Agua Caliente, a small town of whitewashed adobe, where El Indio is hiding out. Manco is already accepted by the gang, and Mortimer joins up as a locksmith. However, when they are caught trying to steal the money they are severely punished, beaten up to a chorus of maniacally laughing Mexican thugs.

The reprehensible El Indio proceeds to double-cross members of his own gang; he releases Manco and Mortimer then, knowing that the duo are better with guns, sends his men after them so that they will be killed, leaving him and his henchman all of the money. El Indio is now visibly unhinged, which tips the smartest gang member off to the deception, so he stays behind to hold El Indio at gunpoint. He asks why he is obsessed with the gold pocket-watch. Flash-backs have occurred before as El Indio sinks into a pot-induced stupor, but now the memory is shown in full: El Indio creeps into a bedroom where two young lovers are seated; he shoots the man and rapes the woman, who shoots herself while underneath him. This girl’s portrait is inside of the pocket-watch and she turns out to be Mortimer’s sister. The final scene is a shoot-out between Mortimer and El Indio, in which the former is victorious. Mortimer is not interested in collecting the bounty on El Indio and his gang, motivated solely by retribution, and instead lets a contented Manco ride away with a cart full of corpses which are worth a (then) massive sum of $27,000.

For a Few Dollars More has a theatrical trailer containing the phrase: “In a land where life had no value, death might have a price.” This land is geographically in the United States, but not portrayed as the United States proper. Just as in A Fistful of Dollars, this liminal zone between the United States and Mexico has weak rule of law, is a repository for dubious characters, and has a hybrid appearance of both nations. Manco, the archetypal mercenary without a past, operates according to his own moral code because the official one has broken down. In the opening scene, Manco asks a sheriff, “Tell me, is the sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal and above all honest?” before contemptuously ripping off his badge. However, Manco does not attempt to reinstate his own moral code; instead he blows up a jail to release a friend of El Indio, double-crosses his partner, and is solely profit-driven. The Mexico-U.S. border itself is a cause for anxiety as a place that cannot be effectively policed, but perhaps more so is the lawless individual.

The difference between Manco and El Indio illustrates the difference between law and morality; while both the hero and villain are lawless, only the villain is unarguably amoral. The character of El Indio was crafted to provoke numerous anxieties; on top of being cruel, murderous, double-crosssing and thieving, he also is a drug-addict and rapist. For a Few Dollars More was produced in the 1960s when anti-drug propaganda was in full swing, and there could be few better images to dissuade marijuana use than a glassy-eyed El Indio trying to smoke away painful memories of murder. The name “El Indio” gives a Mexican twist to the cowboys and Indians genre, but just like in the old Westerns when the supposedly rapacious sexuality of Indian men would cause them to carry off white women, so El Indio rapes Mortimer’s sister for no given reason. Old stories die hard.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Captain Ron

Captain Ron posterThe light-hearted comedy Captain Ron (1992) begins with introducing the Harvey family who live in the fast-paced, crowded, and bustling city of Chicago. Martin Harvey, played by Martin Short, and Katherine Harvey (Mary Kay Place) are the preoccupied and stressed-out parents of the 16-year-old, wild child Caroline (Meadow Sisto) and the oft-forgotten, 11-year-old Benjamin (Benjamin Salisbury). This family is depicted as the typical American household of modern age: distant from one another and constantly anxious, and yet astoundingly unable to see their own detachment. This attitude is illustrated perfectly when Martin discovers that he has inherited a sailboat from his late Uncle William, and when he proposes to his wife that the family spontaneously travel to the Caribbean to collect it and sail it up to Miami, she responds with, “We’ll be spontaneous when we have the time.” Perhaps this outlook would have stuck if it wasn’t for Caroline who bursts into the house to giddily announce her engagement to a deadbeat teenage boyfriend. Needless to say the Harvey family jets off to the Caribbean island of San Pomme de Terre as soon as possible.

They have hopes of living in the grand boat which they had seen in pictures, but arrive to the sight of a disheveled, long-forgotten sailboat, littered with funky beachcomber belongings and aptly named “Wanderer”. Not long after, they meet the unorthodox, one-eyed, bohemian Captain Ron, whom they had hired to guide them in their sail to Miami. After Ron accentuates his first impression with plenty of mishaps and humourous one-liners (which leave the family guessing if he is, in fact, truly insane), they all set-off for their first stop of many, St. Haag. Ron proves his skills on several occasions as a boat captain, but leaves much to be desired in terms of a guide. On account of his non-existent navigational skills, the family ends up lost on deserted islands or twenty miles off course. Little by little, the family begins to relax as they admire Captain Ron’s attitude of nonchalance, but this only causes Martin to feel less like the hero he had hoped to be on this adventure. This lack of respect for Captain Ron only leads Martin into trouble, such as thinking that ‘guerrillas’ means ‘gorillas’ and laughing at Ron’s stupidity that such an animal could be found in the Caribbean, only to later be captured by a group of revolutionaries. Captain Ron always manages to get them out of the sticky situations (which he himself actually brought about), until one night when he’s in charge of the kids in San Juan and Caroline ends up with a tattoo while Benjamin is caught betting on monopoly and drinking beer. This is the last straw for Martin and he fires Ron, boards the boat, and sails out into the night, unawares that Ron owes money to a dangerous man named Rosco after losing at monopoly.

Rosco and his buddies end up chasing after the Harveys and thus become the family’s idea of the notorious Pirates of the Caribbean. After being captured, thrown into a lifeboat, and then floating in the ocean for 16 hours, they arrive in Cuba to find their boat docked and Captain Ron miraculously appearing to help them get it back. During their escape plan, Captain Ron realizes that the kids look up to him more than their dad. Feeling slightly troubled at this news, he fakes a broken leg at a crucial point in their get-away, leaving Martin to save the day. After the family escapes from Cuba through their own skill as sailors, the Pirates, still in pursuit of the Wanderer, begin to open fire. Ron desperately maydays for help and the US Coast Guard arrives at the same time that Martin realizes Ron had been faking his injury. At that moment, the Coast Guard requests to speak to the Captain on the radio and Ron hands Martin the receiver, which instantly absolves any qualm the two may have had. The journey is finished in Miami, where the family finally says good-bye to Ron and then goes to hand-over the boat to a yacht-distributing company. But suddenly, all four have a change of heart as they turn the boat around only metres from the dock and sail back out to sea with the spontaneity inspired by the one-and-only Captain Ron, who has shown them what it means to be a family.

It is interesting that during their one, brief stop in Cuba, Martin exclaims frantically to his family that this communist island isn’t all about Ricky Ricardo and I Love Lucy re-runs, whereas previously he had gotten caught-up in the Caribbean vibe while on the boat and cried out to his wife, “Lucy, I’m home!” It appears as though acting as a Cuban icon is not the same as actually setting foot on the island governed by communism and harsh rule. Here we can see that the Harvey family is certainly out of their secure haven of America where they can keep such allusions at a safe distance; for example, the distance from the couch to the television set. Nevertheless, this idea of American protection is still upheld when they are conveniently rescued from the pirates by the US Coast Guard.

Apart from the character development of the Harvey family, we also see the Caribbean expand its own character. Places like St. Haag and San Juan are displayed in the film as party islands, filled to capacity with rich tourists enjoying their 2-for-1 happy hour drinks and dancing to the beat of a Caribbean steel-drum on a carefree vacation. This is what Caroline had imagined the Caribbean to be: a St. Bart’s or Club Med; instead of Captain Ron’s aptly put description of “voodoo, hoodoo, and all kinds of weird shit”, which would explain their run-in with guerrillas and being chased by pirates. The film displays a vagueness of location; purposefully with the beautiful islands that the group comes across when lost, and unconsciously with places like St. Pomme de Terre, which is actually Puerto Rico and may only be recognized as such by the flag hanging in the local police station. It may not be clear as to how the Caribbean should be viewed, as cruel or as carefree, after watching the assortment of facades; but it is presented as a place of wonder, where, with the right captain at the helm, one can find both leisure and quirky adventure.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars posterA Fistful of Dollars (1964) has a fascinating lineage; the film was directed by an Italian, who based it on Yojimbo (1961) by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who in turn was influenced by the Westerns of John Ford. The film was shot in Spain and takes place in Mexico, but it is also profoundly American with its choice of hero and thematic preoccupations. Clint Eastwood is this hero, a tough-as-nails mercenary who becomes embroiled in the feud between two families for supremacy over the town of San Miguel. Eastwood plays them against each other until he is the last man standing on a dirt road littered with corpses, and San Miguel is finally purged of its criminal population.

The film opens with Eastwood, who is sparsely referred to as Joe, riding into the sun-parched and seedy San Miguel. He befriends the barman, Silvanito, who describes the local politics: The town is run by two competing families, the family of the town sheriff, John Baxter, and the Rojos brothers which include the prudent Don Miguel, the reckless Esteban, and the intelligent and ruthless Ramon, who is the leader. Silvanito says, “They’ve enlisted all the scum that hangs around on both sides of the frontier and they pay in dollars.” Joe does not mind being employed alongside this scum, so he solicits Don Miguel and Estaban for work and they hire him. Ramon is introduced when, after killing an American cavalry squadron and donning their uniforms, his men lure the Mexican military to trade gold for American guns and instead massacre every last soldier. The massage is clear that Ramon means business.

Joe remains indifferent to San Miguel politics meanwhile he plays the Baxters and the Rojos against each other, and extorts money from both. However, something changes in Joe after he witnesses the Rojos trading a Baxter hostage for Marisol, a woman he has been told that Ramon is madly in love with. During the trade-off, Marisol is spotted by a wailing child, and she runs to him with an agonized, tear-stained face to embrace him and his father, before being torn away by Ramon. Silvanito tells Joe that Marisol was taken for ransom after Ramon accused her husband of cheating at cards, and that he threatened to kill the child should her husband resist. That very night, Joe slaughters the men guarding Marisol, leads her to her husband, thrusts a wad of bills into her hand and directs the thankful trio to the United States. Ramon apprehends Joe and has him brutalized, but despite being too battered to walk upright and having one eye swollen shut, Joe is still sharp enough to engineer his escape.

Ramon is crazed with anger and hell-bent on retribution; he launches a manhunt for Joe with orders to torture Silvanito and torch any building that Joe may be hiding in. A broken and tattered Joe drags himself to the coffin-maker, the only other man in town besides the Baxters and Rojos who makes money, and the kindly man evacuates him from San Miguel in a coffin. As they ride by the Baxter homestead Joe peeks out from under the lid to witness a scene which is the pinnacle of excessive violence in the film; the Rojos engulf the home in flames and as Baxters come stumbling out, choking on smoke and shouting their surrender, the Rojos gun them down with cruel enjoyment. Even Eastwood, with his trademark passive face, is visibly sickened by this spectacle, and in the following days he spends recuperating, one can see his hardened resolve to eliminate the Rojos. Just as the Rojos are torturing Silvanito, Joe emerges from billows of dynamite smoke and proceeds to have a climactic shoot-out with Ramon, who he astounds by hiding a bullet-proof breastplate under his poncho. After the last body hits the ground, Joe bids Silvanito and the coffin-maker farewell, taking no reward with him other than the satisfaction that between him and Ramon, he had the faster draw.

A Fistful of Dollars
is a cynical film in that noble human emotions are glimpsed only a few times in comparison to the selfishness, rage, jealousy, deceitfulness and cruelty portrayed. Yet even the most honorable action, of Joe enabling Marisol to escape, was not based on any moral code. When Marisol asks, “Why do you do this for us?” Joe answers, “Why? I knew someone like you once and there was no one to there to help. Now get moving.” He could just as easily have not done this, like at the beginning of the film when Ramon’s men shoot at Marisol’s child and Joe merely stands by. A Fistful of Dollars is unlike typical Westerns in that the hero does not act upon moral ideology but impulses; he has no complex back-story to help the viewer understand his motivations.

The “frontier” looms large in A Fistful of Dollars. For Marisol, the border is a gateway to a better world in which Ramon has no jurisdiction. However, the border is more generally portrayed as lawless zone where the arm of state power fails to reach, and thus the most degenerate elements of both societies, from Mexican crime-lords to shiftless Texan drunkards, congregate there. Unlike in the Westerns of previous eras, in which the frontier was replete with promise, or at the least kept under control by the hero, frontier lawlessness in A Fistful of Dollars is beyond the scope of any one man. However, after a massive amount of bloodshed, Joe does manage to save San Miguel from the clutches of criminality. The violence in A Fistful of Dollars takes many, often brutal forms, but it is ultimately justifiable because of its cathartic role. In order to become a civilized place, San Miguel must endure its darkest hour of savagery, from the hero as well as from the villains.

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Next Stop Wonderland

Next Stop Wonderland posterThe plot of the 1998 film Next Stop Wonderland revolves around the concept of destiny and whether or not the protagonist, Erin (Hope Davis), will overcome her solitude and realize that fate is on her side. The movie begins in Boston with Erin, a middle-aged nurse, walking home to find her boyfriend Sean (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a fervent activist, moving out. Erin is devastated by this and becomes even more introverted than she already is. Her mother, not realizing that Erin is actually content in her time alone, sets up a personal ad in the newspaper for her daughter in hopes that she will begin to date again and enjoy herself. Erin begins to glimpse a man every so often who takes the same commuter train as her (the train which coincidentally ends the line at ‘Wonderland’, the greyhound racetrack). This mystery man is Alan (Alan Gelfant) and his story runs parallel to Erin’s, but no matter how much the two seem destined for each other, their stories never seem to meet.

Alan volunteers at the city aquarium while studying to be a marine biologist; however, it soon becomes clear that Alan’s family is one of little means and that he owes his education to a loan shark named Frank who has been feeding Alan’s father’s gambling addiction for many years. Alan loathes being in debt to such a character, especially when Frank asks him to kill the aquarium’s prize balloonfish, Puff, as a favor to some of Frank’s powerful friends who had lost a land deal to the aquarium. As Alan struggles with his morals on what he should do, his best friends decide to make a bet to choose a personal ad and see who can make-out with the girl first. Alan is disgusted with their game and doesn’t participate; a fortunate coincidence seeing as the friends choose Erin’s ad and she then cleverly calls them out on their petty scheme when she discovers what they had been plotting. Meanwhile, Alan eventually gives in to Frank’s wishes and steals Puff away, but makes it look as though the piranhas ate the prize fish. Frank is elated and erases Alan’s debt, thinking that Alan would be happy to continue doing such jobs for him, but this is far from the truth.

Back in Erin’s story, just when she hits despair on account of all the lousy suitors she’s encountered, she meets a charming, Brazilian man named Andre (José Zúñiga) who is in the hospital to finish his recovery from a bout of malaria. Despite Erin’s best attempts to dissuade his romantic efforts, she finds that she is strangely attracted to him, if only because her deceased father used to vacation with her in Brazil and the fond memories seem to draw her to this Brazilian. Andre invites her to return with him to Sao Paolo, and although she feels as though she would be running away from her troubled life in Boston, she agrees. When she returns home that same day to find Sean asking her forgiveness, she exerts the fortitude which she’s learnt over the course of her blind dates and turns her back on him. Meanwhile, Alan shows his own independence from Frank as he returns Puff to the tank unharmed. He then boards the ‘Wonderland’ commuter train to head home. Here is where fate takes action and sends Erin into a traffic jam while on her way to the airport. Seeing no other alternative, she decides to catch the ‘Wonderland’ train in order to reach her plane on time. While on the train she becomes overwhelmed by the amount of people squishing against her and when she tries to leave the train she bumps into Alan and simply lays her head down in exhaustion on his shoulder. They both smile at each other when they realize that they have glimpsed one another in and around the city, but have never met. At this moment, Cupid’s arrow makes an almost audible twang in its release. Alan and Erin walk by the sea and as their sentiments and thoughts exactly mirror those of the other, they both realize that they are headed for the next stop: Happiness.

There are subtle hints of South America which are dispersed throughout Next Stop Wonderland, such as Erin’s half-hidden record album entitled “After Hours South America”, or one of her suitors who claims to be an avid collector of South American art and travels often to Brazil; yet they all depict the continent as being a tranquil and loving place in stark contrast to the busy, dreary life of Boston. Apart from Andre being the only South American character, he is also a musicologist who was collecting ethnic folk songs in Bolivia when he contracted the malaria. As sappy as it may be that he sings love songs softly in Portuguese to the women he is seducing, he’s is also the first man in the movie to see Erin for who she is. He says that she must have some of Brazil in her because she is sad and happy at the same time; she doesn’t smile but she seems content. While it’s never explained as to why Brazil would also be seen in this light, the plot does tend to showcase Brazil as a place of fond memories and new beginnings. Is Erin running away to Brazil or is she trying to run towards a new life? When she finally meets Alan, a new question arises: Which is her true ‘Wonderland’: Brazil or Boston? Although she has declared to Andre that she will return to Brazil someday, fate finally shows her that happiness doesn’t have to be found in a country which embodies pleasant memories; it can also be found right in front of you.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bells of San Angelo

Bells of San Angelo posterOn one level, Bells of San Angelo (1947) tells a straightforward story about B-movie cowboy Roy Rogers uncovering a silver smuggling racket on the Mexico-U.S. border. On another level, however, the movie has a humorous, self-referential motif that draws attention to the clichés of the Western genre, causing the viewer to wonder where the reality of the movie stops and self-conscious parody begins.

The film opens with a high-speed chase on horseback that ends with a man being shot, and one of his pursuers planting a hunk of silver ore in his pocket. When the male lead Roy Rogers and sidekick Cookie arrive on the scene, they learn that the men were carrying out orders from their boss to shoot trespassers and thieves found on his Monarch mine, which is on the U.S. side of a large property straddling the Mexico-U.S. border. However, the small size of the silver ore makes Rogers suspicious; its value is not worth killing a man, but perhaps this man had to be silenced. Later, the town receives word that celebrity author Lee Madison is coming to research his latest Western novel; Rogers groans because he thinks that this writer grossly misconstrues the West and gives cowboys a bad name.

Lee Madison turns out to be a woman, and upon hearing the men badmouth her novels she introduces herself under another name, so that she can anonymously observe and take notes on the Western milieu. While she is riding in the welcome carriage for Madison, Rogers stages a hold-up disguised as a bandit. When he sees the woman, he graciously explains that his goal was to rob Madison and redistribute his wealth, thereby enacting the cowboy stereotype he so hates in her novels. When night falls, henchmen for the boss Rex Gridley execute a Mexican border sentry down in the San Angelo mine, which is on the Mexican side of the property. Their conversation reveals the details of the racket: Gridley is smuggling silver, which is cheaper in Mexico, into the Monarch mine through the connected San Angelo mine, and making a profit by selling it as if it were mined on American soil.

In between brawling with the Gridley gang, Roger has a rock sample from the Monarch mine analyzed. This confirms his suspicions that Gridley is running an illegitimate business; the Monarch mine is worthless, its rock merely has silver traces whereas the ore found on the shot man was almost pure, implying that it has been smuggled in. Tensions are heightened when a British official named Lionel Bates comes to renegotiate the property where the mines are located. Madison and Rogers, who discover each other’s true identities, maintain a playful banter between them and sing songs poking fun at Westerns. Eventually, Rogers and his men mobilize against Gridley and his men, entailing a lengthy and theatrical pursuit and shoot-out. The film is generous to its protagonists in the end: Rogers is victorious over the Gridley gang, Cookie makes it rich from the property renegotiations, and Madison has first-hand material for the best Western novel she will ever write.

Bells of San Angelo is a Western in which the characters express their love for and their opinions about the genre, and even consciously let its conventions guide their actions. Madison, familiar with common Western scenarios in novels, enthusiastically helps Rogers and Cookie to bring the scam to light and hunt down its mastermind. At one point during the final shoot-out, Madison and Rogers out-wit Gridley with the same tactic she used in her novel “Murder on the Border.” The characters and settings are all archetypes, from the tough yet suave singing cowboy, to the dim-witted and lovable side-kick, to the mean-spirited and greed-driven nemesis. Like cartoon characters come to life and playing with the pen that drew them, the characters of Bells of San Angelo contemplate, parody and manipulate the Western.

In Bells of San Angelo Mexico assumes its typical Western movie role; a land of opportunity for American adventurers, criminals or fortune-seekers, the kind of people that the morally upstanding characters have to go to Mexico to keep in check. In this case, Gridley has one foot in Mexico to profit on its silver resources up north. What the law is and who enforces it is often ambiguous in Western border-crossing stories. Cookie and Rogers represent two sides of the law; Cookie is the overweight sheriff always twisting his hands in worry about getting search permits and Rogers is the independent lawman with rough-and-ready, immediate solutions. Though Rogers says to Gridley “You have no right to take the law into your own hands” when he orders trespassers and thieves to be shot, Rogers has no qualms about busting jaws and breaking property in the name of justice, that is just what heroes do.

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